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Federal Opinion

Ignore the Distractions in This Week’s Senate ECAA Debate

By Rick Hess — July 06, 2015 2 min read
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It’s been a muggy few days in DC, which feels like appropriate weather as things heat up again on the ESEA front. This week, the Senate will take up the Alexander-Murray Every Child Achieves Act, and the House is on deck to take a floor vote on the Student Success Act. That means it’s wholly possible that, by July 31, both the House and Senate will have passed their own version of ESEA/NCLB reauthorization. At that point, the two chambers would go to conference and try to hammer out an agreement that could pass both the House and Senate and avoid an Obama veto.

Now, I think both the House and the Senate bills would constitute a huge improvement over the status quo and the profoundly troubled prescriptions of NCLB and the depredations of Secretary Duncan’s waiverocracy. Both bills could be improved and have features that I don’t love (such as the new pre-K language in the Senate bill), but either would mark a giant step forward. That said, legislative compromises are only compelling if one trusts that the compromise will be respected. The Obama administration’s track record and recent Supreme Court rulings have left conservatives more dubious than ever that words on paper offer a lot of assurance on this front.

They’re right to be watchful. After six years of Obama and eight of Bush, I’m all for double-bolting every provision against Washington’s edu-bureaucratic sprawl. And I’m hugely appreciative of the role that critics have played in helping ensure that the current bills would have Washington focus on transparency and regular reporting, rather than trying to micro-manage school improvement. That said, those seeking to rein in Uncle Sam want to make sure we’re fighting the right fights and not battling phantasms. In recent months, the Senate and House bills have struggled not only with the inevitable disagreements, but also with a lot of unnecessary distractions borne of confusion or misinformation.

Just last week, a columnist argued at Townhall.com that the Senate bill would actually boost federal control over school accountability, supersizing the number of schools subject to sanction. She wrote, “Under ECAA (as under NCLB), state assessments must '[m]easure the annual progress of not less than 95% of all students . . . .’ But while NCLB applies this requirement only to the subset of low-income schools that receive federal Title I funding, ECAA extends the requirement to all schools by making it part of the mandatory state accountability system.”

If true, that would be a troubling misstep. But the Senate proposal would actually not extend the law’s reach. Instead, it maintains NCLB’s “95% requirement” while eliminating that law’s famously unhelpful mandated accountability regime. In NCLB and the Senate bill, the 95% test participation rate applied to all schools—not just Title I schools. However, unlike NCLB, the Senate bill gives states leeway to determine how the 95% figures in their accountability systems and what consequences, if any, there should be for not meeting the 95% target. As one Senate staffer put it, "[We] understand that states are dealing with political pressures on testing and need some flexibility here.”

Confusion is inevitable when it comes to a sprawling statute like ESEA. And I too am concerned that Washington seems to be intruding further and further into our daily lives. But, especially for those of us who want to rein in Uncle Sam’s national school board, we’ll be best served in the ESEA debate if we’re careful not to get distracted by inaccurate claims or misleading rumors.

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